Buss: Upending petition process an unfair play

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

When you can’t win by the rules, change them, even in the middle of the game.

The Michigan House and the Senate recently rammed through legislation to immediately upend a 30-year-old understanding of Michigan’s ballot petition process, despite the fact that signatures are already being collected on a number of petitions.

The move deliberately threw a wrench into two citizen-led initiatives currently gaining traction for this November’s ballot: One to ban hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) for oil and gas, and another to legalize recreational marijuana.

Neither issue is one the Republican-controlled Legislature, generally speaking, would like to see prevail. But instead of debating the issues on their merits or allowing the people of Michigan to decide, lawmakers are rewriting the rules to frustrate the citizen initiative process and render both issues dead on arrival.

Citizen-backed initiatives take years of planning. It’s no small feat, and can cost up to $2 million to make it to the ballot. Both of these movements have been working hard to gather enough signatures – almost 300,000 are required – to get a ballot spot.

Michiganians should expect that their ballot initiative laws won’t suddenly change. Or, if change is necessary, that it comes in a future cycle, not one currently underway.

This change, however, isn’t urgent or necessary. Senate Bill 776, first introduced by Sen. Dave Robertson and now on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk, gives signature collectors only 180 days, voiding all signatures older than that window.

This tosses out a practice in place since 1986 that allows signatures older than 180 days to be considered valid if shown by a local clerk that they are from registered voters.

Jeff Hank, who’s leading up the marijuana legalization petition effort MI Legalize, initially requested that the state’s electronic database, the Qualified Voter File, be used to verify signatures older than six months. This would also clarify the law and speed up the verification process.

Instead, Republicans on the Board of Canvassers refused to approve the request, and Robertson’s bill was introduced and swiftly passed.

Some of the only groups to testify in support of the bill were representatives of Michigan’s oil and gas industry and manufacturing and chemistry sectors. Several citizen-led groups testified against the bills.

Obviously Michigan’s energy industry saw an opportunity to block a potential fracking ban. And it isn’t wrong on the policy of fracking. Most evidence finds fracking has been done safely in Michigan for decades. It makes natural gas more affordable for Michigan residents, and is critical for a state so reliant on manufacturing jobs.

But that is a fight on the substance, and this is a change made by pulling strings.

Same goes for the drive to legalize recreational marijuana, which got caught in the crossfire surrounding the fracking ban.

Michigan faces a huge revenue shortfall, with mounting bills. But lawmakers just tried to kill a marijuana ballot measure that could bring more than $100 million dollars in new tax revenue.

Legalizing the increasingly uncontroversial drug is working elsewhere. In a recent six-month window, Colorado collected $64 million in retail marijuana tax revenue, which was a 64 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. It’s exceeding all expectations, and its once skeptical governor is now supportive.

A ballot measure to legalize marijuana here enjoys broad statewide support, would bring an abundance of revenue for schools, roads and infrastructure — and accomplishes it all without raising taxes. Yet the Legislature pushes back on it and further refuses to clarify the state’s vague and discriminatory medical marijuana system.

Michigan’s Legislature is failing to adequately tackle issues staring it in the face. And now it’s also finding ways to stifle the voice of the citizens it serves.


Twitter: @KaitlynBuss